A leader invites our agency

In this post I am continuing to talk about the “axioms of leadership and faith”.

If a leader is always present and at work, it matters quite a bit what sort of leader is present. What are a leader’s characteristics, what is he or she like?

We all have this inner picture of what leadership looks like to be effective. We will find ourselves leading in this same way, even if we don’t like it. This picture is most often developed from our own upbringing, the way in which we were raised.

Perhaps you have read the “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief” book, or seen the movie. Here the heroes are offspring of the Gods. What it means to be a God in this universe, in the Greek and Roman mythological universes, is that you have powers that can overwhelm and overcome things, make things happen. The Gods then utilize these powers to dominate and subjugate the natural world, or the human world. This is one view of leadership, to have power over others to achieve your own goals. This seems all too common in our world around us.

We all have assumptions as to how power works. Our first step in understanding ourselves is to observe what do we believe is effective leadership?

Let’s explore the 4 that I think are most common, and then we can contrast that with a leadership style that most effectively empowers others.

The first one would be a leader who is distant.

This might feel like a parent who has given you a home, provided all you need, but is never around. This feels great, we have lots of freedom, we get to go and do whatever we like. But what does one do when we need help? Whom do we learn from when we have questions?

I had a job a little like this once, where I was creating reports and told to just read the instructions and figure it out. If I could figure out how to write these reports, I would get paid a percentage for each one that received a refund. That was great, if I could do it efficiently that would be lots of money for not a lot of work. But if I was not able to write the reports, then I wouldn’t get paid. I did not last very long at all in that position.

Perhaps we see God like this. Maybe He made the world, He set things in motion and now he’s detached, distant. I think He likes me, and I think He intends good towards me, but I don’t really interact with him very often, unless I really need something.

Many of us have experienced leadership in this way. We live as though they might intercede if we really need help, but we are not sure. We believe they have the power, the knowledge we need, but it seems just out of our grasp.

The second one is the demanding judge.

This is a leader who is perhaps a gifted strategist, who sees the big picture and finds meaning in the challenge of changing the world. But you don’t want to be cared for by this sort of leader because they are always a little controlling. There is always some underlying frustration, perhaps like a parent trying to get their kids to obey. And if you offend this sort of leader, then they will cut you off and you have to prove yourself to get back in their good books. Emotionally these leaders are isolated and highly distrustful.

An executive at Oracle describes his CEO Larry Ellison in this way “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.” This observation is amusing, but it is also troubling.

We may also think God is demanding and judges us harshly. We may perceive when we sin, we need to be more repentant and committed because forgiveness is not cheap.

For any of these four misconceptions of God, you can find this God in the Scriptures if you want. If you go into the Old or New Testament without Jesus, you can cobble together versus in stories, and craft an image of God that looks distant and detached, or like a demanding judge.

It is therefore important to form our ideas of who God is, around Jesus’ example. He is the interpretive key, the lens through which we read all of Scripture. Jesus was never frustrated and demanding of his followers, while at the same time He did maintain a very clear understanding of the mission before Him.

Thirdly is the doting leader.

This leader is the person who always has an Ice cream cone for you. You ask for 10 dollars and he gives you 20. They indulge you. Their greatest good for us is that we would get everything we want, when we want it.

We may identify a parent with this style as a helicopter parent. They pay extremely close attention to their children’s experiences and problems, and attempt to sweep all obstacles out of their paths. The research shows this limits a child’s essential development of self. It creates these mountains of anxiety because the children do not believe they can handle the world without someone’s help.

Sometime we see God like this also. Someone we can recruit as our personal self-esteem, life coach. I think this God most appeals to us because of the toxicity and the damage that a distant God and a demanding God has done in our lives.

The fourth image is a micromanager.

This is a leader who would be in meticulous control of all things. They are anxious, and nervous about how it will all turn out. I think this was a little how I lead when I first hired staff, very anxious and needing to have everything worked out before I could give directions.

I think as parents we sometime feel this was as well. We are not given a manual so we become uncertain about how to raise our children. We then over compensate and never lets the children too far out of our sight. We hope they tell us in some way how to parent them.

We think we need to have the answer, instead we are simply to be the answer.

Sometimes we have this image of God who is in meticulous control of everything. We might think God is in control of our choices, or the situations we put ourselves into. He is hovering over us and controls our behaviors to fit with His plan. He perhaps causes natural disasters as a trial or as part of His plan to see us grow to rely on Him.

There are nuanced and elegant ways that certain theological traditions understand this, that leave room for human agency. But for us, we don’t think it’s the best frame to describe the God revealed in Jesus.

A leader can prime the maturation in those they lead.

There are several ways a leader can do this. The characteristic we are looking at today is a Leader is ruthless about helping people own their agency.

When we are born, we don’t know what we want, what we like or hope for. This takes time to develop, perhaps even more than a life time. We need space to express our own thoughts, ideas, tastes, opinions, and feelings.

Interestingly enough the human mind has a protection mechanism, that makes space for this development. We call this counterwill. This is not a child expressing their will, it is a child’s defense against the expectations and the will of those around. Often, we mistakenly call these children strong-willed, and we think we need to break their will.

What the child needs, is to have some space to make choices, to find their own agency. to find their capacity to act independently. This is the birthplace of self-awareness and responsibility.

It is not that uncommon even in Canada, for daughters to not be allowed to make choices for themselves as children. I reflect on one case, where the first choice this daughter made was to choose someone whom she wanted to marry. Of cause, she was not choosing a partner at all, she was choosing a way to be free from the expectations that her parents placed on her. It was a very poor choice for neither of them were ready for such a commitment, and it alienated the parents as well.

When we feel the counterwill rising up, the desire to venture forth, we need to empower our children to make appropriate choices from that very early age.

If we think of how Jesus leads his disciples, we can look at the story of Jesus engaging with the disciples during the last supper. Jesus could perceive that Judas was not all in, perhaps looking double minded in his allegiance to him.

Rather than not saying anything at all and just being hands-off. Or giving him a reprimand like the demanding judge. Or tell Judas everything’s going to be okay, everybody makes bad choices. Or trying to convince him that this is the wrong choice, you’re ruining your life.

Rather than doing any of these things, Jesus says to Judas, “what you have determined to do, do it. Own want you want to do, make your choice, use your agency, do it.”

Jesus empowered people to make choices, to take responsibility for their agency and to live with the consequences. He doesn’t argue, He doesn’t try to convince them they’re wrong, in a direct, coercive, controlling way. He simply reveals where they are at, proclaims good news to them, and leaves them with the choice.

Therefore, my second axiom is “a leader who is present and at work, invites our agency.” This is our capacity to act independently and to make our own free choices.

If I were to place these characteristics of leadership on a scale, I would place the 4 misconceptions of leadership on one end of the scale, with all there focus being on control or avoiding the responsibility of control. At the other end I would place Inviting Agency, this is the invitation of the dependent’s own thoughts and ideas.

How do leaders interact with you, do they invite you to make choices for yourself? How do you lead those in your care? Do you give them space to make choices when you think they are resisting your ideas?

If you like the kinds of things you’re hearing, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line at line@families2families.com, and let me know what other things you are interested in as well.

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